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California sets Dec. 23 as Dungeness crab opener for commercial fleet

The twice-delayed commercial crab season will officially open statewide Dec. 23 — likely too close to Christmas for most boats to land a catch for the markets, but in time for the fleet to profit from the lucrative days that typically follow through to Chinese New Year.

The season opener was announced Friday by California Fish and Wildlife Director Chuck Bonham as a compromise with a fleet still rattled by the onset of new regulations designed to safeguard protected whales and other marine life from entanglement in fishing gear.

“They’ve told us they can fish responsibly and avoid whale entanglements,” Bonham said in an interview. “We believe them.”

Just like last year, however, the commercial fleet may still decide to stay tied up at dock out of fear that hitting the water too early could risk entangling a whale, though surveys and counts indicate whales have begun migrating south and some have even reached Mexico.

Commercial crabbers are not convinced it’s safe yet, and though that is not a unanimous stance in the fleet, ports up and down the California coast already have told state Fish and Wildlife they want to delay the start until the end of December.

“The fishermen are very concerned about whale entanglements,” was all that Lorne Edwards, president of the Bodega Bay Fishermen’s Marketing Association, would say about the matter Friday.

The agency has issued a special notice reminding the fleet to use best fishing management practices and has instructed them to avoid areas where whales still may congregate — including the area between Point Reyes and the Farallon Islands, favored fishing grounds for Bodega Bay boats and other Northern California crabbers.

Whether they fish or not on the 23rd, it’s clear that what once was a reliable North Coast holiday tradition, beginning with Thanksgiving and the season’s first crab harvest, is no longer so, given new considerations and rules designed to reduce whale entanglements, among other environmental and market factors.

Even the usual push and pull between state regulators and the crabbing fleet, which historically champs at the bit when the autumn air turns cool, have turned upside down amid ever-rising stakes in the high-dollar Dungeness fishery.

Many crabbers have become hesitant to push their luck if there remain any whales feeding in the fishing grounds, lest an entanglement result in curtailment of the industry that is their lifeblood.

Bonham intended as late as midweek to open the season next Wednesday, but there was enough pushback from the ports that he adopted the compromise date of Dec. 23.

Still, fleet leaders remained tight-lipped about the matter late Friday. Those from Bodega Bay, which has developed outside influence among commercial ports, declined to comment after Bonham’s announcement.

After unexpected disagreement over last year’s season opener, last-minute dissension between the fleet and Bonham this year has caused renewed tension.

“It’s a fleet that has such diversity within its business models,” Bonham said. “Big and small, north and south, fishery and processor. When you do get to the moment of decision, that diversity can result in a lot of difference of opinion, and when we get to the difference of opinion, we end up in this last-minute inconsistency around the message.”

A new regulatory framework that went into effect Nov. 1 after an alarming spike in entanglements off the West Coast beginning five or six years ago requires much closer management of the crab fishery than ever before, based largely on assessed risk of entanglement and actual incidents.

In consultation with a working group that includes crab fishermen and environmental representatives, Bonham is now required to monitor coastal concentrations and migrations of endangered blue and humpback whales, as well as Pacific leatherback sea turtles.

He also must issue periodic assessments of the risk for potential run-ins between them and commercial crab boats, whose heavy traps lie on the ocean floor, connected by thick lines stretching to buoys on the surface. Those lines can ensnare whales and other marine life, sometimes cutting them or trapping them under water, causing them to drown. Whales also have been known to become so tangled up in lines and buoys, that they simply become too exhausted and drown.

Depending on the severity and number of any incidents, regulators can order crabbers to remove gear from the water, close certain zones to fishing or shut the fishery altogether.

The compromise Dec. 23 opener, “gives us a couple of benefits,” Bonham said. It provides seven extra days for the whales to migrate, but it also allows the fleet to plan on a date certain for its season start.

“We won’t leave it open ended and go through this cycle again and create confusion,” Bonham said.

You can reach Staff Writer Mary Callahan at 707-521-5249 or mary.callahan@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @MaryCallahanB.

Mary Callahan

Environment and Climate Change, The Press Democrat

I am in awe of the breathtaking nature here in Sonoma County and am so grateful to live in this spectacular region we call home. I am amazed, too, by the expertise in our community and by the commitment to protecting the land, its waterways, its wildlife and its residents. My goal is to improve understanding of the issues, to find hope and to help all of us navigate the future of our environment. 

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